Introduction course – lesson 3

The Historical Buddha

To find the sources of Buddhism, we have to go about 2500 years back in time. In the sixth century BC in the foothills of the Himalaya in the village Lumbini (in what then was North-East India, now it is in Nepal) a prince was born in a small kingdom. His name was Siddhartha Gautama. According to legend he married the beautiful Yashodhara when he was 16, and they had a son together, named Rahula. Siddhartha led a royal life at the court, with everything he could possibly wish for, but he was kept isolated from the outside world. When he finally sneaked out of the palace a few times, he was confronted with ordinary people outside, and he witnessed poverty, sickness and death for the first time. This shocked his very foundation. Obviously life for most people was not like what he had experienced at the court. People met with all kinds of suffering during their lives. He was most struck when he realized the impermanence of everything, the certainty that everything and everyone he loved would at some point in time pass away. He decided to leave his status and possessions behind, left the court and went out to look for the reasons behind suffering, and find a solution to the problem. He studied with local meditation masters, and then joined a group of ascetics. At some point in time, he found himself almost dying from starvation during his ascetic exercises, but still no nearer to the solution of the problem of suffering. He then decided to leave the known methods behind, and look for his own solution. Finally, about 6 years after leaving his home, while meditating under a tree, he sees the way out, and is enlightened. He is then about 35 years old. For the remaining years of his life, he travels through India to teach people about the insights he obtained. From then on he is called “the Buddha”, which means “the awakened one”. After about 45 years of preaching, he dies at the age of 80.

The Teachings (Dharma)

Now, what is this thing called “enlightenment”, and what were the insights of the Buddha? The basic insights of the Buddha are often summarized in the famous “Four Noble Truths” and the “Eight-Fold Path”. These still form the basis of the teachings of all Buddhist schools. The term “truths” in the “Four Noble Truths” indicates that these are statements about life which are fundamental, verifiable and realistic. The word “noble” is used out of respect for the Truths, and because fully understanding and living these Truths will make a person generous and compassionate. Fully penetrating understanding leads to a direct personal experience of liberation of the mind, and will make a person truly noble.

The Four Noble Truths give a solution for the fundamental human problem of suffering (Dukkha). Buddhism does not try to reason about the “why” of suffering, like Christianity, but seeks for the cause. The causes of suffering are in the person him- or herself. This has the implication that a human being can free himself of this suffering. The Four Noble Truths show this step by step.

The first Noble Truth: Life means Suffering (Dukkha)

Everyone in his life will meet suffering, there are no exceptions. One person may encounter poverty and hunger, another serious illness or physical disabilities. A third person may suffer from psychological pain, like fear, sadness, despair, hate, frustration, jealousness, etc. None of us escape death. These are all forms of suffering or dis-ease. As the American Zen master Jeff Shore puts it: “shit happens”.

Of course, there are also pleasant moments in life. We can eat something nice, or enjoy a beautiful sunset. Our work may give us a sense of satisfaction. We may fall in love, love someone, and be loved back. But in all of these experiences “dukkha” is also hiding, as they are all temporary, and we know they will come to an end. Therefore, life contains an essential, fundamental form of suffering.

The second Noble Truth: Suffering has a Cause: (Ignorance of) Attachment

The Buddha discovered a cause for the suffering we experience. The problem is our attachment to all kinds of non-permanent things, and our ignorance of this fact. These non-permanent or transient things include physical objects, ideas, (attention from) other people, etc. The attachment causes craving, a wanting to have, and clinging, holding on to things. As all these objects of our desire are non-permanent, they will at some time fall away, and suffering is inevitable. When we realize all this, it becomes clear that the real cause of suffering is only in our minds.

The third Noble Truth: Cessation of Suffering is Attainable

This Truth tells us that suffering can fall away when we fully realize the meaning of the second Truth, and end our craving and clinging. The fact that it is attainable means that we can learn / train how to do this. In the end, it comes down to a kind of being where we are always fully attentive in the here and now, and can unconditionally accept what it brings us.

The fourth Noble Truth: There is a Path which leads to the End of Suffering

The Buddha pointed out a way which leads to the end of suffering. Each of us has everything he needs to follow this path and experience the end of suffering.

The path consists of 8 aspects of our lives which we should take care of. Together they form a practical guideline to develop yourself in the right way. They are:

  1. Right view (see everything as it really is, and understand that the Four Noble Truths are valid)
  2. Right intentions (be committed to ethical and mental self-improvement)
  3. Right speech (tell the truth, speak friendly, warm, and gently and to talk only when necessary)
  4. Right action (act kindly and compassionately, be honest, respect the belongings of others, and keep sexual relationships harmless to others)
  5. Right livelihood (earn your living in a righteous way)
  6. Right effort (use your energy to do wholesome things)
  7. Right mindfulness (be mindful, see clearly what happens here and now)
  8. Right concentration (train your ability to point your mind, for example in meditation)

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After Gautama Buddha dies, his teachings spread throughout Asia over the centuries. In China, the first Buddhist master arrives around the year 500. His name is Bodhidharma. He is accredited with the following famous quote:

A special transmission outside the scriptures;
Depending not on words and letters;
Pointing directly to the human mind;
Seeing into one’s nature, one becomes a Buddha.

Bodhidharma is seen as the founder of the Zen tradition, which started in China, where it is called Ch’an. The first Chinese monks introduced forms of Buddhism to Japan by the end of the sixth century. But Zen, the variety of Buddhism which was the result of a merger between Buddhist and Taoist ideas, and which emphasizes meditation strongly, did not gain a foothold in Japan until the 12th century. Two main schools develop: Rinzai Zen and Soto Zen. Rinzai Zen puts an emphasis on koan study. Soto Zen, with Zen master Dogen (1200-1253) as founder, does not focus on koan study, but emphasizes the gradual development of insight through meditation, mainly in the form of shikantaza, “just sitting”. Zen Centrum Eindhoven is a school in the Rinzai lineage. 

In Europe interest in Buddhism started in the 18th and 19th century, when intellectuals started studying the Buddhist texts. In the 50s of the 20th century, more and more Asian teachers came to Europe and the US, and started meditation centers. In the big cities in the Netherlands, the first meditation centers started in the 70s.